Why Do Athletes Have Mental Health Issues?

To achieve peak performance, it is important that athletes have strong physical and mental health. However, while sports participation is excellent for energy, fitness, muscle strength and endurance, it does not guarantee protection from mental health conditions. In fact, they may be more vulnerable than others in the general population.

Athletes are experiencing a range of psychological issues – including stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, eating disorders and behavioral addictions – which are due to a combination of factors. There are often specific triggers for athletes at various levels of competition, with university and college student athletes facing different pressures to professional and elite sportspeople. Below is a breakdown of these triggers, along with a call to action for where to get help.

Why Collegiate and Professional Athletes Are Prone to Mental Health Problems and What Can Be Done to Mitigate the Risk

Why Student Athletes Suffer from Mental Health Problems

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, around 30% of female and 25% of male student athletes report suffering from anxiety and only 10% seek help from a mental health professional. Find out more about other Common Mental Health Issues in College Student Athletes.

University and college student athletes are at risk of developing mental health issues due to the relentless nature of their lives. As well as devoting time to training, traveling and competing, they must also perform academically to keep their sports eligibility. A typical Division I college football player dedicates around 43 hours each week to their sport (three hours more than the average full-time job) and this does not include all the hours they spend studying. 

Specific pressures include strict lifestyle requirements, with a focus on diet and exercise; missed classes due to off-campus sporting fixtures; interpersonal conflict with teammates and coaches; insufficient sleep due to their grueling schedule; lack of time for social and other extracurricular activities; adapting to constant visibility within their college community; and, for some student athletes, financial worries as they do not have time for a part-time job. The ongoing demands of this ‘always on’ culture can be overwhelming, and lead to unhealthy habits and psychological distress.

In this TEDx talk, Athletes and Mental Health: The Hidden Opponent, Victoria Garrick from the USC women’s indoor volleyball team, shares her mental health problems and the challenges of being a college student athlete.

Why Professional Athletes Experience Psychological Issues

The American College of Sports Medicine reports that around 35% of elite athletes suffer from burnout, disordered eating, anxiety and/or depression. Find out more about the emotional problems and disorders experienced by professional athletes in our article: Most Common Mental Illness in Athletes.

Professional and elite sportspeople are expected to constantly perform at a high level for a prolonged period and they can never have an off day. These pressures and unrealistic expectations can come from family, friends and coaches (who are supposed to be their support network) as well as teammates and fans. Other stressors include limited privacy, lack of control or independence, competition for a place on the team, conflict with teammates and/or coaches, injury and inadequate recovery time.

A report into Depression in Athletes: Prevalence and Risk Factors found that sports injury is one of the main reasons why athletes can become depressed. Sports concussion and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, in particular, can have a major impact. Other risk factors for depression in athletes include career termination – involuntary career termination is associated with significantly greater psychological distress than voluntary career termination – and a decline in athletic performance. In extreme cases, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts.

According to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) statement, dissatisfaction with body shape and image can trigger eating disorders in professional sportspeople. The IOC has found that over 60% of elite female athletes have reported body shaming pressure from coaches. Eating disorders are also common in athletes who use performance and image-enhancing drugs. Although many of those suffering from an eating disorder try to hide their symptoms, the negative impact on their athletic performance is a powerful motivator for seeking treatment.

Elite athletes are at risk of developing behavioral disorders, particularly gambling and gaming addiction. They are vulnerable to the dangers of gambling due to their high disposable income, desire for competition and challenges, propensity for sensation seeking and impulsivity, thrill of risk taking, and as an escape from the pressures of competing. Professional athletes can be susceptible to gaming disorder for several reasons. Maintaining peak performance can be highly demanding – both physically and emotionally – and they often develop coping skills to deal with pressure. Gaming can be a way to de-stress and deal with an intense training schedule, dip in performance, media scrutiny, career threatening injuries and more.

Where Athletes Can Get Mental Health Support

If you, or someone you care about, are experiencing mental health issues, it is important to seek help. Living with emotional problems can feel overwhelming and harm your sporting career, relationships and other areas of your life.

At Kindbridge, we provide high-quality, online therapy that is tailored to your specific needs and situation. Our fully-qualified counselors can remotely diagnose and treat a range of mental health disorders in the comfort of your home at a time to suit you.

Take back control of your life and get in touch today. Call +1 (877) 426-4258 or email [email protected] to book a virtual appointment.